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Over the course of three months The Dependent earned the trust of a small group of drug dealers operating on the Downtown Eastside. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the alleys and on the corners, we conducted interviews with those involved and observed the Hastings drug trade from the unique perspective of the street.
First in a four part series.
FROM A BENCH at the corner of Carrall and Hastings I watch as the street dealers ply their trade. Standing in clusters, they’re easy to pick out: Hooded sweatshirts and neck tattoos. Hats with flat brims and holograms indicating authenticity still inside. They lean against buildings and parking meters, one leg up and bent at the knee – stones in a stream of sunken faces and shuffling feet.
I warily approach four men at an alley entrance. Their necks are thick and they wear Nike runners, sweatpants, and graphic print tees. We exchange nods and I launch into my well-worn spiel:
I’m writing a story about the street-level drug trade. I’m not trying to fuck with anybody; I just want to understand it from the perspective of the dealers.
This is the tense part. I’ve canvassed these streets for over three weeks and I’ve yet to encounter anyone willing to talk. The responses range from feigning hearing loss to outright hostility.
There are certainly less nervy ways to write this story: an interview with the VPD, a chat with a director at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, an appointment with the friendly folks at InSite. It would be an account of addiction, gangs, violence, and exploitation. It would be an accurate portrait of the Hastings drug trade, but it would be absent the elusive voices of those most involved, and my aim – for good or ill – is to write it in the words of the dealers themselves.
They scrutinize the business cards, pondering my proposition.
Our time’s a hundred bucks an hour, the big man says, and they all laugh.
I’m not allowed to pay.
Well, I’m not allowed to talk.
Just as I’m about to accept this as another defeat, a cop car wheels into the alley behind us, window down. The driver bids a sarcastic hello and calls over a young dealer by name, demanding his driver’s license. Scanning the remaining faces, the cop then raises a finger and unwittingly propels me into the world of the Hastings drug trade.
Did you know you’re associating with the biggest drug dealers in the Downtown East Side? he asks. The group laughs and the cop shoots them a dirty look.
They’ve wondered at my recent presence down here. A business card, coupled with the computer’s output, satisfies their curiosity. They note that the young dealer is “moving up in the world” and implore me to be careful, then disappear down the alley.
They do that to you whenever they want? I ask as we walk back to the group.
How many times a day?
And they know everything?
But they can’t do anything…
THE YOUNG DEALER melts back into the circle, which has grown by two in the familiar uniform. I linger tentatively, waiting for a break in conversation, feeling the police have provided me an unlikely in: for a moment I was treated like a dealer, and the officer’s plain talk has eliminated the need for the group to deny their purpose on these streets.
Do you mind if I hang out for a bit? I ask.
All eyes defer the question to the big man I’ll call Royal. He nods thoughtfully, hands in the pockets of a black graphic print track suit.
All right, he says, his speech slow and careless and exuding a quiet authority. What did they ask you?
About what I was doing. For a moment I felt like one of the gang.
We’re not a gang, Royal corrects me, utterly humourless. They think we are, but we’re not.
The conversation resumes and every couple of minutes a man on a bike with sunken cheeks and an ill-fitting helmet appears. Circling us, he reports on the movements of people and police. He informs us that two officers are coming down the alley and as we walk down Cordova another guy on a bike calls out to us: Six up. Four on foot, and he motions back the way we came.
I walk silently, struggling to formulate useful but innocuous questions.
How can the cops know what you do but not bust you? I ask a short, stocky dealer beside me.
They don’t know everything, Royal interjects. They think they do, but they don’t.
They know the whole game, counters the dealer, but it’s about evidence. I don’t do anything to incriminate myself. I don’t ever touch money, I don’t ever hold anything and I don’t ever send people to the workers. Well, if I do, I do it discreetly. His eyes are bright and sharp but he never meets my gaze. It’s about evidence, he continues. They build a picture of you and they collect all this evidence against you and once they’ve got something big, they bring it all together and bring a case against you.
Are you ever scared out here? I ask him.
Only when they come deep at me.
Like, tires screeching and lights blazing and that?
No, like when they just come walking over and straight up to me. I wonder if they’ve got enough evidence to put me away, but then I think, ‘no’. That’s the only thing that gets my adrenaline pumping.
We wander back to the alley entrance. Leaning against telephone poles and parking barriers, the conversation turns to girls. Cars. Steroids. Money. The mood is remarkably relaxed.
The circle expands and contracts with dealers, messengers, and addicts. Despite standing in their midst for hours I never see drugs or money.
ROYAL WANDERS AWAY from the group and over to the benches. He moves slowly, hands in his pockets, barely checking for traffic. A younger dealer with dark skin and a wide grin goes with him, baggy sweatsuit concealing his thin frame. I follow.
Specific questions have so far been met with uncomfortable silence, so I keep things generic, hoping for breadcrumbs of truth. In a roundabout way I ask about the territories, the regular faces on the regular corners I’ve come to know over the weeks, the ethnic divides from block to block.
What about those Spanish guys? I say.
What about ‘em? asks Grin.
What’s their deal? They won’t talk to me.
He thinks about it for a moment.
They work out front, he says, motioning to Hastings, and we work out back. He nods to the alley beside us.
What if you went out front, what would happen?
Nothing, Royal says. Depends who you know. His big hands are like meat cleavers resting at his waist.
What if they came out back? I ask.
If they just came working one day out back it wouldn’t be a problem. But if they did it like, a couple days in a row we might ask what’s up, you know?
They got their own way and we got ours, Grin explains. They got their Spanish style. They’ll sit out there with their guy, like just ten feet away and watch him the whole time. We let our guys go wherever and we just meet up later, you know?
So you guys don’t actually sell drugs?
He shakes his head.
So what do you do then? is what I want to ask, but I know it will be greeted with silence.
How much do you pay your guy?
If I make $100 I’ll give him $10, say, but that’s just an example.
So, ten percent?
That’s just an example.
And how much do you make in a day?
He hesitates. $500, he says finally. Anywhere from $500 to $1,000.
But it used to be way more, says Royal.
The recession. Plus, that’s before they shipped all the addicts out of town or sent them to jail for the Olympics. You used to be able to make like $3,000 a day.
A cloud of marijuana smoke wafts over from a nearby bench.
Do you guys smoke weed out here? I ask.
I do at home, but I try to stay away from illegal activities when I’m here, Grin says. They bust you for anything. Smoking too close to the building. Jaywalking. Not wearing a helmet. They give you like a $250 fine, he says.
They tell us, we gotta tax you somehow.
The conversation cools and in the silence I grow uncomfortable. Rather than wear out my welcome I ask if I can come back tomorrow.
Sure, Royal says, to my surprise. When’s your article coming out?
I’ll probably research it for a couple of months.
I reach out to shake Grin’s hand but he extends his fist instead.
Around here we do it like this, he says with his wide smile, and I bump knuckles with the both of them and wander giddy into the street.
The next two months will be interesting, to say the least.